Christie’s Transportation Record Assailed as Short-Sighted, Short of Cash

Meir Rinde | March 30, 2015 | Transportation
Transit-related decisions on Christie’s watch, critics argue, have managed to disappoint some Democrats and Republicans

Ramp Closed Traffic
When transportation experts discuss Gov. Chris Christie’s record, their voices are weighed by a disappointment that occasionally edges into anger. In many ways, Christie’s record on transportation is the one policy that unites many Democrats and Republicans in their criticism of him.

The critique begins with Christie’s canceling of the ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) tunnel project between New Jersey and Manhattan shortly after taking office. But it extends to the impending exhaustion of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, and scandals at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In October 2010, nine months after he took office, Christie announced the state was pulling out of the long-planned, $8.7 billion ARC project to build a crucial train tunnel under the Hudson River, which was needed to handle passenger demand and to allow the rehabilitation of the 105-year-old tunnels currently in use. Work had begun on the project, which was to be primarily funded by the federal government and was scheduled to be completed by 2017. Amtrak later proposed its similar Gateway project, but completion of that tunnel could take a decade.

“The lack of movement to find alternatives puts us in a precarious position, because Amtrak will now tell you that the (current) tunnels are going to fail at some point and we’re going to need a new tunnel,” said Cathleen Lewis, director of public affairs and government relations for AAA New Jersey. “Canceling the ARC Tunnel and not finding an alternative way to get to that same outcome was a huge problem for transportation planning throughout the state.”

The second, related issue is Christie’s lack of action on a gas tax hike or other measures to replenish the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which is close to running out of money for bridge and road repairs, train line expansions, and other new projects.

Despite months of dire warnings about the TTF’s depletion from Forward NJ, a coalition of business groups, advocates, and elected officials, and from Christie’s own transportation secretary, Jamie Fox, the governor did not even mention transportation in his budget address in February, and later said the funding problem was “not a crisis at the moment.”

“Christie is so inattentive to transportation,” said Martin Robins, a former executive at the Department of Transportation and the Port Authority who planned the ARC Tunnel project. “Just look at what he just said, that there’s no crisis. He is so manipulative and inattentive.”

After the speech, Tom Bracken, president of the state Chamber of Commerce and typically a Christie ally, said, “Those of us so deeply invested in fixing the state’s broken infrastructure were left horribly disappointed.”

Lewis said the administration does deserve some credit for completing a Turnpike-widening plan that began before Christie was elected, launching a $1 billion rehabilitation of the decrepit Pulaski Skyway, and supporting the Port Authority’s ambitious project to elevate the Bayonne Bridge and allow passage of larger ships.

But even those latter two projects have drawn criticism because of their association with the Port Authority, whose increased politicization by Christie led to the Bridgegate lane-closure scandal, a controversy over large tolls hikes, state and federal investigations, and an ongoing fight over how to reform the independent bistate agency.

Tolls, not taxes

When Christie pulled out of the ARC Tunnel project, which was to be mostly funded by the federal government, he cited potential cost overruns that could cause the state’s required contribution to balloon. But allowing him to get the Port Authority to shift $3 billion in toll revenues to other projects in New Jersey, also let the governor temporarily fix the Transportation Trust Fund without a politically unpalatable gas tax hike.

[related]With that money in hand, the administration vowed “to end the state’s long overreliance on debt to finance transportation projects” by decreasing borrowing and increasing “pay-as-you-go” cash funding for five years starting in fiscal 2012. But as state revenues remained weak and Christie opposed any tax increases, the administration dropped “pay-as-you-go” after a year and returned to borrowing against the TTF. Some time in the next year, the fund will only have enough revenues to cover debt service.

“The governor started by talking about the idea that we should be responsible and pay for certain projects basically with out-of-pocket money, and allocate X number of dollars. But it didn’t materialize,” Lewis said. “It’s not that that there were not difficult budget years. But there is a reluctance to discuss things that start with T (for tax).”

“There was a reluctance to have that conversation and to push anything forward while there were other alternatives. And I think we’re getting to the point where there are not many more alternatives,” said Lewis, a member of the Forward NJ coalition.

One T-word the governor has been more comfortable with is tolls. Under pressure from Christie, after the ARC Tunnel was canceled, the Port Authority board approved spending $1.8 billion in toll revenues on the Pulaski Skyway rehab and three other New Jersey projects, even though they are not within the Port Authority’s region. The Manhattan district attorney and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are reportedly investigatingthe funding scheme.

After the funding transfer was approved, the governor’s appointees at the Port Authority helped orchestrate a large bridge and tunnel toll hike in 2011 to pay for the Bayonne Bridge project, the agency’s World Trade Center redevelopment, and other work. They allegedly proposed a bigger increase initially so that Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo could make a show of demanding it be reduced.

Some of the same gubernatorial appointees allegedly arranged the Bridgegate lane closures as a political dirty trick, leading to an investigation by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman that could bring indictments soon. A bill that would bring more accountability and transparency to the Port Authority passed both the New York and New Jersey legislatures by an unprecedented unanimous vote but was vetoed by both governors. Reform is now at an impasse as New Jersey Democrats try to override Christie’s veto and a Republican legislator pushes an alternative measure that Democrats describe as watered-down.

Christie has also depended heavily on Turnpike tolls to prop up NJ Transit, diverting $295 million a year in tolls to pay for bus and rail service while slashing the transit subsidy from the state’s general fund. As with the Port Authority fund transfer, the use of Turnpike money has let Christie avoid using scarce tax dollars or raising new revenues.

But the authorization to divert Turnpike monies expires in a year, and even if it is renewed they will not be enough. NJ Transit recently announced its needs will increase by $140 million next year, necessitating a boost in funding from the state’s Clean Energy Fund, $40 million in spending cuts, and $80 million in new revenue, most likely from the first fare hike in five years.

A lengthy to-do list

Once money has been found, whatever the source, Christie has backed some key projects that support New Jersey’s heavily transportation-dependent economy. Those include the Port Authority’s $1.3 billion raising of the Bayonne Bridge to allow passage of larger ships coming from the expanded Panama Canal to the ports in Newark, Elizabeth, and Staten Island.

“If you’re a transportation nerd, it’s one of the coolest projects you’ll ever see. The way they’re going to raise the bridge while keeping it open is amazing,” Lewis said. “But it’s also going to allow the ports to remain competitive. We’re keeping business here and hopefully can grow business.”

She said the state Department of Transportation’s current rehabilitation of the 83-year-old Pulaski Skyway is also important, since it will upgrade a narrow, deteriorating, substandard roadway, allowing for safe, fast travel. She additionally noted less prominent but still significant work the DOT has undertaken, such as a tree-trimming project along major roads early in Christie’s tenure that helped prevent even worse infrastructure damage during snowstorms and Hurricane Sandy.

Yet there is much more to be done without a clear funding source to pay for it, Lewis said. While widening the Turnpike in central Jersey removed a major traffic headache, a new chokepoint developed further south. Many of the state’s aging bridges have poor safety ratings and need to be replaced. More robust repaving and maintenance schedules could help prevent the rash of potholes that have appeared in recent weeks.

Beyond the ARC Tunnel, numerous mass-transit proposals have remained on the shelf, in some cases for decades, according to Robins and other experts. They include an extension of the Hudson-Bergen light rail line, which still doesn’t reach Bergen County, and construction of a line to Glassboro, a project that NJ Transit has not embraced.

Other dormant NJ Transit proposals are a Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex line and an extension of the West Trenton line to the Raritan Valley Line. While construction of the Lackawanna extension from Port Morris is underway, further extension into Pennsylvania remains uncertain.

By continuing to deprive the state’s transportation network of a reliable source of funding, Christie’s refusal so far to accept a gas tax increase or raise other taxes has not only starved individual projects of funding and made fixes more expensive, but also makes it difficult to anticipate future needs and prevent future crises, Lewis argued.

“Let’s just say we got an infusion of money tomorrow, and we run around the state and we fix everything. If we don’t know that that’s money always going to be there, and we can’t plan out, then we can’t make sure we don’t get back there,” she said. “We need to be able to take the long view and say, these are the things we need to fix right now, and then we need to put them on a five-year plan, a 10-year plan.”